Adjudicating “Caesar’s Cure for Poison”

By Claire Gherini

Part I of this series on the “discovery” and publication of Caesar’s poison antidotes and Sampson’s cure for rattlesnake bites examined why the members of the South Carolina Commons House of the Assembly wanted the recipes of Caesar and Sampson. Part 2 examines how South Carolina’s lawmakers in the Commons House of the Assembly evaluated the veracity of Caesar’s and Sampson’s medical claims. Lawmakers believed that in order to determine the efficacy of Caesar’s poison antidote, they needed first to determine Caesar’s aptitude in the diagnosis of poison cases. Notably, the Assembly eschewed methods available from the world of natural history and experimental science. Lawmakers instead relied on sworn testimony from elite laypeople to assess Caesar’s antidote, a method that mirrored the legal practices prevalent in trials of slaves accused of poisoning in the colony’s courts and which, in court, often incorrectly led to the conviction of slaves. 

When Lowcountry colonists sickened and died suddenly, it was extraordinarily difficult to determine if death was the product of a poisonous mixture clandestinely mixed in “amongst the victuals served at table,” or a natural ailment. [1] The symptoms medical practitioners in the region used to diagnose cases of poisoning provided little insight. Poisons, one practitioner proclaimed, “causeth divers symptoms and the effect is various…..it kills sometimes in very few hours, sometimes in some months, and at others in some years.” The most telltale signs of poisoning were only discernable when the victims were African or Afro-Creoles, because, the practitioner explained, “the Negroes turn white.”[2] The incompetence of South Carolina’s white practitioners in the identification of many ailments exacerbated the numerous problems inherent in the diagnosis of poisoning in the colony, a situation that no doubt compounded the litany of false poison accusations made against enslaved people. “Hundreds died by the unskillfulness of the practitioners mismanaging acute disorders…they immediately call them poison cases so as to cover their own ignorance” the South Carolina naturalist and physician Alexander Garden observed. [3]

Caesar's Cure published in The South Carolina Gazette, May 14, 1750. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.
Caesar’s Cure published in The South Carolina Gazette, May 14, 1750. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.

Contemporaries’ difficulties in assessing whether the origin of an illness lay in a poison or some other cause made it difficult to ascertain whether a purported poison antidote actually healed a poison. In order to determine whether Caesar’s antidote healed poisons and not some other illness, lawmakers proclaimed the necessity of evaluating Caesar’s dexterity in medical diagnosis and therapeutics. As stated in their own words, lawmakers wanted to hear  “the symptoms by which he [Caesar] knew when any person was poisoned.” Members also solicited from Caesar descriptions “concerning the cure of poisons, together with the names of plants which he made use of in performing the aforesaid cure, and his method of preparing and administering the same.” [4] To weigh the efficacy of Caesar’s poison antidote, Caesar’s competence as a diagnostician was put, in a manner of speaking, on trial before the members of the Assembly.

Instead of trying Caesar’s aptitude in diagnosis, lawmakers could have focused on the antidote itself.  Lawmakers could have used animals as experimental test subjects to see if  Caesar’s poison worked and was safe, a method used by many early modern people (a practice Alisha Rankin’s post explores).  Precedent existed, moreover, for this method in South Carolina where two decades earlier prominent colonists had published an article documenting their successful use of dogs, non venomous snakes, hens, and cats in experiments they made to determine whether antimony worked as a potential antidote for venomous snakebites. [5]  A less involved option would have been to look up the virtues of wild horehound and wild plantain, the two ingredients listed in Caesar’s cure, in one of the natural history texts describing the properties of different flora and fauna of the region. Consulting their personal copies of Mark Catsby’s two-volume (1731 & 1743) Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, lawmakers might have affirmed that these plants functioned as poison antidotes. Lawmakers, however, judged Caesar’s diagnostic skills by collecting sworn testimony from prominent (but by no means expert) white males who had witnessed Caesar’s work as a healer.

These methods of discernment replicated practices common in the trials of the colony’s slaves who had been accused of poisoning whites or other slaves, wherein juries were asked to determined whether the deceased had been poisoned or had died from other causes. To make this judgement, juries in poison trials relied in large measure on the testimony of propertied white laypeople who described the relationship between the deceased and the accused.

In the adjudication of Caesar’s cure, the witnesses’ status as white elite males augmented their reliability as interpreters of the natural world—their ability, that is, to differentiate between ailments caused by poisoning and those brought about by other causes. One of the largest landowners in the colony and a wealthy slaveowner, Henry Middleton Esq., testified that he believed “his disorder proceeded from poison, as he found a good effect from the first dose of Caesar’s antidote and after the second dose the symptoms of his disorder entirely left him.” Middleton also relayed the experiences of his white overseer who ““was in a worse situation than himself,” and was “entirely relieved by the same hand.” As a man of middling status, the overseer’s preliminary interpretation of having been poisoned received official recognition only when the elite planter (Middleton) spoke on his behalf. William Miles, a planter from St. Andrew’s parish, told the Assembly that “he verily believed his sister had been poisoned and was cured by Caesar, and that some time afterward his brother seemed effected with a very odd disorder, and suspecting that it was the effects of poison, sent for Caesar who relieved him instantly.”  Miles further testified that he currently “suspects his son to be in the same situation and wants Caesar to his relief.” [6] These testimonies served multiple functions: they affirmed Caesar’s original diagnosis of poisoning; established his competency as a healer in poison cases; and, on these grounds, vouchsafed the efficacy of his antidote.

Sampson's Cure for Snakebites in the South Carolina Gazette, April 8, 1756. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.
Sampson’s Cure for Snakebites in the South Carolina Gazette, April 8, 1756. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.

In taking stock of Sampson’s antidote for the snakebite, lawmakers did not bother to ascertain Sampson’s diagnostic abilities. There was no need. In contrast to cases of poisoning, it seemed obvious that if one had been bitten by a venomous snake, the infirmities and death that subsequently followed originated from the encounter with the animal and its venom. The members of the Assembly thought about testing Sampson’s snakebite antidote (presumably on a dog), but it was the middle of winter. “No experiment of the remedy can at this season be tried,” they reported. Dormant in the winter, the venomous snakes  lawmakers wanted were, I suspect, difficult to find. (Perhaps South Carolina’s vipers had shriveled up into brittle little frozen snake-sticks?)  Lawmakers instead heard affirmations from five slaveowners, who declared that “their negroes have been perfectly cured of the said Sampson [of their snakebites],” agreed with Sampson’s owner on the compensation he would receive, and called it a day.[7]

This post has shown the similarity between the types of evidence (testimony from elite male clients) that lawmakers used to make sure that Caesar’s antidotes for poisons actually worked to cure poisons and the types of evidence (sworn testimony from white colonists) that juries received when adjudicating poison accusations in the colony’s courts. In highlighting the juridical nature of the tactics lawmakers used to verify Caesar’s poison diagnoses, this post has tentatively located the origins of these methods in the socially and racially asymmetrical world of colonial poison trials.

[1] Alexander Garden, Charleston to Charles Alston, Edinburgh, January 21, 1753, Laing MSS, III, 375/42, University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[2] Doctor Milward’s Letter to the President of the Royal Society reprinted in South Carolina Gazette, July 24, 1749.

[3] Alexander Garden, Charleston to Charles Alston, Edinburgh,  February 18, 1756, Laing MSS, III, 375/44,  University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[4] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 479.

[5] Captain Hall and Hans Sloane, “An Account of Some Experiments on the Effects of the Poison of the Rattle-Snake,” Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), 35 (1727-1728): 309-315.

[6] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterly (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 293.

[7] Journal of the Commons House of Assembly (November 21, 1752-September 6, 1754), Vol. 15, Edited by Terry. W. Lipscomb (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 335.

The Countess of Kent’s Powder: A Seventeenth-Century “Cure-all”

By Michelle DiMeo and Joanna Warren

Michelle DiMeo teaches “Social History of Medicine in Early Modern Europe” at Lehigh University: an upper-level History course cross-listed with Lehigh’s interdisciplinary Health, Medicine and Society program. Students learn basic paleography, and the class works together to transcribe seventeenth-century medical recipes and situate them within their contemporary intellectual context. The following post is an edited version of a research paper written by Joanna Warren (class of 2015), a double major in Biology and International Relations with a minor in Health, Medicine and Society.

“Cure-all” medical remedies were popular in the early modern period, with one of the most popular being “The Countess of Kent’s Powder: good against all malignant and Pestilent diseases, French pox, Small Pox, Measles, Plague, Pestilence, malignant or Scarlet Fevers, (and) good against Melancholy”.  It was first published in A Choice Manuall, or Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chyrurgery (1653), a collection of household medicinal recipes attributed to Elizabeth Grey (1581-1651), Countess of Kent, and compiled by the book’s editor, William Jarvis, a “professor of phisick”. Lady Kent was well-educated and known for her collection of medical recipes and knowledge. A Choice Manuall was published two years after her death, and the 22nd (and last) edition was published in 1726, indicating its mass popularity.[1]

Portrait of the Countess of Kent
Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent; Courtesy of the British Museum

The Countess of Kent’s Powder is lengthy, with as many as 7 to 15 ingredients (depending on the version), many being rare, expensive or exotic. A vast number of these ingredients are similar to that of Gascon’s Powder (also known as Gascoigne’s Powder and pulvis ex chelis cancrorum compositus), another popular remedy also located in A Choice Manuall. The main ingredient in both is “crabs’ eyes”: small stones composed chiefly of lime found in the stomach of crayfish that were powdered and used as an absorbent and antacid.  Like Gascon’s powder, Lady Kent’s remedy also contained powdered pearls to strengthen the heart; white corral to cure bloody fluxes; hartshorne to resist poison, pestilence and rhymes; and saffron to defend against frenzies and weakness of sight.  However, Lady Kent’s remedy also added ambergris from sperm whales (believed to strengthen nerves and the brain) and bezoar stones – solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer – believed to detect and cure poisoning. The most unique addition, lapis contra yarvam, the contrayerva root, was imported from Peru and served as a counter-poison.[2]

A Choice Manual title page
A Choice Manual, 1659 edition. Courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

After the publication of A Choice Manuall, diverse versions of the Countess of Kent’s Powder began appearing in print and manuscript. In the second half of the seventeenth-century, England’s increased exposure to foreign influences also led to more exotic ingredients being experimented with. Examples of these variations are highlighted in several books, such as in Bridget Hyde’s and Sir Thomas Osborne’s manuscripts: lapis contra yarvam and other ingredients were replaced with imports of ivory, flesh of vipers, and unicorn horn.[3] Unicorn horn, usually a powdered rhinoceros horn, was thought to actually come from the mythical creature and had longstanding associations of detecting, preventing and countering the effects of poison; strengthening the heart; relieving headaches; resisting the plague and pestilence; expelling measles and small pox; and curing falling sickness in children. Johanna Saint John’s recipe book contains a complicated version of the remedy that originated with Dr. Thomas Willis, the famous chemical physician. Interestingly, Dr. Willis’ version adds an ounce of antimony – its powerful purgative and emetic properties appealed to alchemists, apothecaries, and other medical practitioners. These select variations highlight that the remedy was not stagnant, but was adapted to fit various medical philosophies.

Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 138r. Dr. Willis's version of the powder
Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 138r.
Dr. Willis’s version of the powder

The remedy remained popular for about 75 years, as judged by multiple versions of it in print and manuscript, and comments from contemporaries who tried it. Sir William Temple, Baronet esteemed, “Of all Cordialls, I esteem my Lady Kent’s Powder the best, the most innocent, and the most universal.”[4] In a letter dated July 9th, 1712, Charlotte Elizabeth, Duchesse d’Orléans declared, “My lady Kent’s powder is an excellent thing, and not by any means to be despised.”[5] However, little is heard about it in the second half of the eighteenth century, and by 1849 Eliza Cook used Kent’s remedy as an example of the “absurd ‘carmins’ of quackery”, commenting that in remedies like this “we find no end of curious and extravagent preparations, the really useful components of which are masked in a crowd of unnecessary ones”.[6]

Though the Countess of Kent’s Powder has long dwindled out of existence, it is an important case study for tracing changing beliefs in therapeutic medicine for almost 200 years. Each ingredient was chosen for its curative or restorative properties and highlights the early modern desire to find a “wonder drug” that could do everything. It is also one of the first printed medical remedies to build off the celebrity status of a recently deceased female practitioner.


[1] John Considine, “Elizabeth Grey.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Oct. 2006; Laura Lunger Knoppers, Politicizing Domesticity from Henrietta Maria to Milton’s Eve (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011), p. 105; Deborah Taylor-Pearce, “Elizabeth Talbot Grey’s Recipes for “Gascon’s Powder.Communicating by Design, 21 May 2013.

[2] All medical definitions are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary or “The ‘Cecil’ Glossary of Materia Medica and Medical Terminology.” Royal Holloway, University of London : Department of History, 2010.

[3] Wellcome Library MS 2990, fol. 109v; Wellcome Library MS 3724, fol. 78r.

[4] William Temple, The Works of Sir William Temple, Baronet. (London, 1750), p. 287.

[5] Charlotte-Elizabeth Orleans, Life and Letters of Charlotte Elizabeth: Princess Palatine and Mother of Philippe d’Orléans, Regent of France 1652-1722(N.p.: Chapman and Hall, 1889), p. 205.

[6] Eliza Cook, Eliza Cook’s Journal, Vols. 1-2 (London: J.O. Clarke, 1849), p. 412.

Drinking Stinking Spa Waters in Early Modern Britain

The "King's Spring" in the Pump Room, Bath UK

Visitors to the Roman Baths Museum in Bath, UK spend most of their trip learning how Roman Britons swam, plunged, and sweated in thermal pools in order to maintain fitness and well-being.  But the museum tour ends at the site of a very different kind of health craze: the Pump Room, where seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women and men gulped down gallons of spa water in the hopes of curing disease.

In early modern Britain, visitors to spas such as Bath swam just like the Romans had, but they also drank the waters, filling glass and ceramic bottles at street-level pumps that purported to offer access to liquid not already paddled in by bathers.  That didn’t mean that people considered the waters to be pleasant.  Bath visitor Celia Fiennes complained in the 1670s that water from the spring was “very hot and tastes like the water that boyles eggs, has such a smell.”[1]

Believing that divine intervention was a necessary component of health and healing, patrons were also encouraged to pray while they drank spa waters.  A spa preacher named Anthony Walker recorded “short meditations and ejaculations to be used whilst the Waters are drinking” in his book on devotion at the spa.[2]  Most of Walker’s recommended spa prayers were quite short, presumably to make them easier to utter while gulping.  One read simply, “Lord, bless these Waters to us” and another modified the well-known Lord’s Prayer by asking “Give us this day our daily Bread; whatever is needful for Health or Strength, whether Food or Physick.”[3]

Despite their distinctly unpleasant smell and taste, spa waters were rarely modified, altered, or included in recipes.  Early modern medical practitioners thought that spa waters were most powerful and efficacious in their pure form, directly out of the ground.  One spa doctor, Dr. William Oliver, even complained that gauche spa visitors who added “milk [or] a variety of medicines into the waters at the pump” were “offensive” and “disturbing,” and that their ill-advised concoctions created “disagreeable sights, and ungrateful smells.”[4]

Sick or incapacitated people who found themselves unable to travel were in luck, because spa waters were available for sale in bottles.  In the late seventeenth century, Mary Parker wrote that although she didn’t “design to drink the waters,” at Bath, she would instead “take some waters hear which the dockter says will doe me as much good.”[5]  Declaring that water from a spring at Rousham had been good for her health, Anne Dormer wrote c. 1690 that “the spaw water…had been sent downe before I went from home.”[6]  And in 1716 Grisell Baillie paid for “12 botles Spa water” to be sent to her home in Scotland.[7]

But how to preserve the warmth, fizz, and mineral taste that made spa waters so unique?  Entrepreneurs at spa cities experimented with many different methods and materials for sealing the water in bottles, including corks, wax seals, and bungs.  In the 1670s Celia Fiennes reported that the waters from Tunbridge Wells were even “filled and corked in the well under the water.”  After submerging the bottles, workers would “seale down the corks which they say preserves it.”[8]

Today you can still “take the waters” at Bath.  For a few pounds, a Pump Room attendant will happily draw you a generous glass of malodorous, lukewarm water directly from Bath’s famous springs, and you can sip it while pondering the early modern history of the spa.  Prayers are optional, but might be necessary to get through the entire glass.

*****

Image courtesy of Alan Pennington [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[1] The Journeys of Celia Fiennes, ed. Christopher Morris (London: Cresset Press, 1949), 20.

[2] Anthony Walker, Fire out of Water: Or, An Endeavour to kindle Devotion, from the Consideration of the Fountains God hath made (London, 1685), 141.

[3] Walker, Fire out of Water, 161-162.

[4] William Oliver, A Practical Essay on the Use and Abuse of Warm Bathing in Gouty Cases (Bath, 1751).

[5] Mary Parker, letters to Sarah Churchill, 1677-1689, Blenheim Papers, Add MS 61474, ff 1-5b, 10, British Library.

[6] Anne Dormer, letters to her sister Elizabeth Trumbull, 1685-1691, Add MS 72516, ff 156-243, British Library.

[7] The Household Book of Lady Grisell Baillie, 1692-1733, ed. Robert Scott-Moncrieff (Edinburgh UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1911), 107.

[8] Morris, Journeys of Celia Fiennes, 133.

Distilling the Essence of Heaven: How Alcohol Could Defeat the Antichrist

by Tillmann Taape

In my last post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).